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By Jay Cost

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Realignments: Here, There, and Everywhere

A few years back I attended a conference on the 2004 presidential election. After my presentation, the panel and the audience engaged in a discussion on the implications of the Bush-Kerry contest. Inevitably, the conversation turned to whether or not 2004 was a realigning election. That was when the conversation devolved - as people debated exactly what a realignment was, which previous elections were realignments, what factors were indicative of realignment, and so on. Nobody really got anywhere, nobody really learned anything. It was just kind of a waste of time. Since then, I've come to believe that realignment is not a very helpful category for understanding American elections.

As problematic as realignment theory is, there is a continuous stream of literature coming out of (mostly) non-scholarly circles following every election that argues that the recent election was - you guessed it! - a realigning one. There's a market for this kind of stuff, I suppose, so it gets produced after almost every presidential election.

This cycle, the literature is pointing to the new Democratic majority. But it wasn't so long ago that Democrats were worrying about the new Republican majority. Here, Ron Brownstein reviews five popular consumption books about the would-have-been realignment of 2004. Their predictions were, of course, wrong - and Brownstein is interested in why.

To reread the major political books from the years around Bush's reelection is to be plunged, as if into a cold pool, back into a world of Democratic gloom and anxiety. Those books were linked by the common belief that Republicans had established a thin but durable electoral advantage that threatened to exile Democrats from power for years, if not decades. Many books from that time assumed Democrats could avoid that eclipse only by adopting the tactics used by Republicans in general and Rove in particular. Liberal activists and thinkers all exhorted Democrats to attack Republicans in vitriolic terms, to find liberal "wedge issues" that could divide the electorate as sharply as the conservative stand-bys of abortion, gun control, and gay marriage, and most important to emulate Rove's approach of seeking to win elections more by mobilizing the party's base with an uncompromising message than by persuading swing voters with a more centrist appeal. "Liberals who regard Bush's political strategist as Satan scan the Democratic Party and ask plaintively, 'Where is our Karl Rove?'" write journalists Mark Halperin and John Harris in their 2006 book, The Way to Win.

Brownstein goes on to ask why all these analysts got their predictions wrong. But I think he misses the bigger picture. There are two salient points I'd make on why these theories were off.

First, it's really hard to predict realignments. If we were to graph the history of the balance of power in this country, we'd see lots of change. Sometimes, the needle moves dramatically in one direction, then dramatically in another. Other times, the needle stays on one side for a lasting period - but more often than not one swing is followed by a swing in the other direction. In light of this volatility, how could we ever know that the recent swing is not going to be countered by another one? I say that we cannot. Of course, realignment advocates have all sorts of reasons to expect the latest swing to be more lasting. Yet none of those reasons ever rely on the data we all agree is necessary to establish a theory of realignment: election results! After all, the future elections haven't happened yet. So, other data is substituted where election results should go; this data is inevitably inferior, and the possibility of error creeps in.

Second, realignment is a highly problematic category. I think it is quite useful to capture the electoral behavior of this group or that - but when it's used as a catch-all for a period of the whole country's history, problems emerge. It has never really captured the "story" of a period in history terribly well. So, anytime an analyst uses it to make an argument - they run the risk of trouble. For instance, 1980 is often taken to be a realigning election. Yet why did the House become increasingly liberal over the next decade? That's quite a problem - which is why these days you'll see people use qualifiers "mini realignment" or "semi realignment" or "partial realignment." That's a sure sign a theory is in trouble.

Brownstein never touches on the bigger problems with realignment theory. Instead, he focuses on why these individual arguments were in error. Brownstein himself has really overworked the realignment concept in recent years. As Sean Trende has observed - Brownstein argued for the Republican realignment in 2004 and for the Democratic realignment this year.

Still, his review of these old books is illustrative. Just four years ago, Democrats were fretting and Republicans celebrating the emergence of a permanent Republican majority. Today, Republicans are fretting and Democrats are celebrating. Isn't that peculiar? I think so. I think it's a sign that all this talk about enduring majorities is kind of an exercise in futility.

I'll put this another way. Brownstein writes:

Ten or even five years ago, few Democrats envisioned that their party would attract the coalition of voters that actually elected Barack Obama and the Democratic House and Senate majorities last year. Even now, many Democrats still don't acknowledge how much their modern coalition differs from their historic image of the party.

I'll do that one better. "Ten or even five years" before Bush's reelection in 2004 - few analysts would have predicted that the Republican party's voting coalition would look amazingly like Bill Clinton's, sampling heavily from rural Southern whites and Hispanics. And then, who would have ever thought that many of those marginal Clinton-Bush voters would actually stick with the GOP in a year of a Democratic blowout like 2008? In light of all the recent changes in the parties' coalitions - how on earth can anybody know what the political world will like like in "ten or even five years?"

Update: Ron Brownstein emails to object to Sean's and my characterization of his argument from 2004. He writes:

[M]y argument was that Bush's consolidation of the red places gave Republicans a thumb-on-the-scale advantage over Democrats, but I was always conscious of Bush's failure even at his apex to meaningfully broaden his party's base. In parallel, I did argue that Democrats had to reach beyond their traditional blue enclaves. But it seems to me exactly what they have done, both at the Congressional and presidential level, while the Republican reach, both demographically and geographically, has narrowed in a way that seems evidence of more than just a short-term backlash against Bush.

-Jay Cost